I find the best way to understand an author I admire is to read their short stories, generally their first ventures into literature when they are mastering their craft.
Certainly this is true of Tolstoy, in his novella ‘The Cossacks’ and his sketches of the Crimean War, which gave him, according to an unidentified editor, “an abiding horror of war, an abiding suspicion of thoughtless patriotism, a sheaf of ghastly memories of butchery and death.”
Reading the short stories of Ernest Hemingway, I went from a distaste for his macho pretensions to a sympathy for a little boy trying to win his father’s approval.
Likewise F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories in ‘Babylon Revisited’ give a revealing insight into the author’s craft, and one of them, ‘A Diamond as Big as The Ritz’ is a very weird bit of science fiction unlike anything he ever wrote. For the record, the diamond in question WAS as big as the Ritz, and possibly bigger.
For those who admire Russell Banks, I heartfully recommend ‘The Angel on the Roof,’ a collection of short stories gleaned from previous collections. These are all brilliant stories, some more brilliant than others, but they show the advancement of this brilliant author from the weird lady who raises guinea pigs in her trailer to the ice fisherman who wins the lottery.
I can’t say I enjoyed these stories, but I could always see where he was going, and how they prepared him to write ‘Affliction’ and ‘The Sweet Hereafter.’
Banks’ genius is you might not enjoy his work, but you learn from it.